Genesis 12:1-4a • Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 • John 3:1-17
Candis O’Rear told us a story at our Session meeting on Monday about the last time Dan and Candis visited their granddaughter Lily. When they are lucky enough to be near Lily—and I suspect that would be about every day if she didn’t live in California—Dan and Lily will often play together. And being almost three, Lily has so much energy that it is sometimes just too big for the little apartment she lives in with her parents. And without a yard to run in, sometimes they just need to find a way for her to run it out inside.
So Lily and Dan, or Boppa, as Lily calls her Grandpa, will be playing quietly, and all of a sudden, Lily will go, “Hah…!” and suddenly there’s something that is after her, that is propelling her to run and let loose some of that energy. She says what it is and Boppa tells her what she needs to do to get away—usually swimming on the rug or running around the table three times until she can once again contain her joy without bursting.
And Nummi said what it was, and off Lily went, running, leaving Nummi in a dust cloud of joy.
I love that image of Lily. In my own mind, I see my college freshman Claire when she was four years old, her body rigid and shaking with excitement as she is sitting on her bed “reading” her Mickey and the Beanstalk story. She doesn’t actually know the words, but she knows the book so well that she knows what happens, and as she turns the next page it’s like her little body is going to burst with excitement, and the story that goes with the pictures fills her up. Her face is tense with joy and anticipation. That’s what I see when Lily looks to her Nummi and says, “Say what it is!”
Tell me what’s next! Say what it is!
In Candis’ telling of it, there is such a joy-filled exhuberance and absolute trust that Lily fills this story with. And what Lily sees in her Boppa and Nummi is what I imagine Jesus wishes for Nicodemus to know when he comes to Jesus in darkness, his hood over his face, furtive glances over his shoulder, imagining all sorts of dangers following him, but tragically, not with the joy and trust of a two-year old girl who knows the safety of faith at play.
If you want to see this kingdom in its fullness, you have to be born again. If you want to see God as God really is, you need young eyes. If you want to know the absolute security that let’s you live freely and look with exhuberance and joy to what God has in mind next, you must learn to know and trust God as Lily does her Boppa and Nummi.
Now, it’s helpful to know there is something of a comic routine going on here that’s lost in translation. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Jesus tells Nicodemus. But Nick is confused, and we are too by his cringeworthy response: "Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
It’s as if Nicodemus is a two-year old stuck in literalism. He doesn’t get it; he doesn’t get it like two year old Lily does. Part of the problem is that it’s a big joke; it’s the same word translated three different ways in the English version because it has multiple meanings. Again, anew, from above—these are all possible meanings of the very same Greek word, and Jesus is simply asking Nicodemus to have a little imagination, to believe again in a God who is first and finally, love—a God who so loved the world that he gave his son for it, a God—and we forget this next verse—who like any self-respecting Boppa or Nummi—did not send the Son to condemn the world, but in order that it might be saved. How could we imagine anything less generous?
When you know your Boppa and Nummi as well as Lily does, it’s a joy to run. No imagined threat has any power greater than the love you know. No tiny apartment or limited world is too small to constrain your joy, your sense of possibility, your delight for the adventure.
How could it be any less with God?
That’s what Jesus wants Nicodemus to understand. He’s not looking for denial. He’s not looking for him to turn a blind eye to the difficulty he faces. He’s not asking him to deny that things are complicated, tough, and yes, even painful. But he wants him to remember what faith looks like. He wants him to be reborn to the joy that God seasoned all of life with. He wants him to consider again who is in charge here, who holds the universe, the character of the one who says what’s next.
I mean, come on! We’re talking Boppa and Nummi here. We’re talking the God who is, above all else, love. This is the God who calls Abram and Sarai and says leave what you’ve known, and follow me. You’ll go places you’ve never imagined, and you will bless a world along the way.
Or as Romans says it:
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Actually, I think that’s John’s question too, because he steps out of his comedy routine in verse 11 to have the Son of God look directly at you and me. Right after Jesus delivers his punch line about Nicodemus being a master teacher but not getting these simple things, the you of Nicodemus switches to the plural you all that looks to you and me, squarely in the eye and says, “Hah!... Have faith!”
Look to Lily and have faith. Look to God, the God who is more than anything, love, and have faith. And give yourself to it and to him with the energy of a little girl, eyes young again, and run with abandon into a world that is simply too small to contain your joy. And you will find your healing. You will find your faith. You will recover your life.